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Illinois Country Living

Youth to Washington
50 years of fun fused with a history lesson

By Niki Shutt

Education and fun are fused together to form a tour where eager students learn about the history of cooperatives and our country. This year will mark the 50th trip of young Illinoisans to the country’s capital, a trip sponsored by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC). Not only do the winners get to see all of the monuments and museums, but they also meet with their senators and representatives as well as other students from around the state and the country.

The Illinois Cooperative Youth Day is a shorter, more local version of the Youth to Washington tour. It took place on April 1. On that day, high school students from Illinois cooperatives were brought to Springfield to meet with legislators and learn about the government as well as tour Springfield. Some of those that traveled to Springfield were chosen in an interview process to continue on to the Youth to Washington tour in June. The lucky ones are chosen based on their grades, volunteer work, and community involvement.

On the bus ride to Washington, a hands-on activity teaches the students how cooperatives work. It’s called the Chip ‘n’ Pop Co-op. Students form their own co-op with board members and managers to sell snacks and soda for cheaper prices than retailers in Washington, D.C.

While in Washington, one outstanding student from Illinois is chosen as the state’s representative for the Youth Leadership Council (YLC) by his or her peers. Joseph Van Leer was selected in 2003 for YLC. “The experience was amazing, and I am still reaping the benefits,” he says. After the YLC tour, he attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign where he studied Political Science and Communication. He is now attending law school at Loyola University Chicago.

“The summer before law school I was a staff assistant for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) during the Youth Tour and the July leadership conference for the YLCs. And to continue the huge amount that the NRECA and AIEC has done for me, I am working as a legal intern in the NRECA’s energy division this summer in D.C.”

The trip also lets students meet new people and make new friends. “Linda Comstock and John Freitag just throw you on the bus for about a 15 hour trip and really you have no choice but to make friends, and fast,” Van Leer says.

“The students just love it. They have so much fun making new friends,” trip coordinator, Linda Comstock, says. “A lot of them stay in touch after the trip.” Several of the former Youth to Washington students have even sent updates about their lives, a few saying they met their spouses on the trip.

The tour can influence the students’ lives greatly. Other students have also gotten into politics or agriculture. Van Leer says, “This trip has had a huge impact on my life, and reinforced my will to pursue government work.”

© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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